Can Ireland Unite?

If Ulster pressed for it and if Britain agreed to end partition in Ireland, would the people of the Six Northern Counties count themselves as rescued or captured? Would they be able to hold their own? Political, religious, and economic divisions raise the specter of a “second-class citizenship" for the minorities in the North as in the South. But, says JOHN V. KELLEHER, these divisions are man-made and can be healed by new leadership. Mr. Kelleher, of Irish descent and a frequent traveler in Ireland, is Associate Professor of Literature at Harvard.



IRISH politicians never stop talking about the Partition of Ireland, a fixation of theirs that seems to shut out consideration of several other large problems which outsiders might regard as more immediately important. The fixation is more apparent than real. If it were real it might produce some result. Instead, for all the complaining speeches and all the dreary propaganda of these last twenty years, nothing has been done about Partition except, perhaps, to make it worse. The reason is that no one in power in the Republic of Ireland has shown himself willing to consider the price that must be paid for reunion.

Partition is used to explain all Ireland’s ills and all Ireland’s conduct. Partition is actually a symptom, one of several major symptoms, of the distemperature the country has been enjoying since the end of the Civil War in 1923. It is no more decisive in the Irish syndrome than emigration or the decline of rural marriage or the fallen state of Irish literature or the queer timidity so often shown toward large internal problems and toward the world outside.

The decision to end Partition rests with Northern Ireland. From time to time some self-appointed Liberator in the South talks about erasing the Border by a march on the North. This is mere wind. There will be no march. There will be no marchers either. The direction, when it appears, will be all the other way, a voluntary reaching out by the North toward real amalgamation with the rest of the country. When that offer is made it will be accepted at once, and many of those who accept it will be weeping salt tears most pitiful to behold.

For one is forced to the conclusion that those who talk most about reunion dread it most. Indeed, well they might dread it. A reunited Ireland will bear very little resemblance to the current Republic and still less to the corner-pocket statelet of Northern Ireland; it will look and function something like a real country concerned with real affairs.

It is well known that the Irish mind, thinking on Irish history, recognizes no statute of limitations. A few braw apologists for the Border would have Partition existing from the time of the great pagan epic, the Táin Bo Cuailgne, As for whom to blame — Lloyd George or Randolph Churchill, grand-père; Sir Edward Carson or Michael Collins; ex-President Cosgrave or William of Orange; James I or De Valera — you can take it back, chronologically or temperamentally, as far as you like. At this late hour it matters very little. The history of the problem is nearly irrelevant to its solution. Three present factors count: religious differences, the failure of either state to create within its own borders a vigorously healthy society, and the bald fact that the division between North and South aggravates with every passing year.

Anti-Partitionist propaganda never admits any of those factors. It describes Partition as a horrible injustice perpetrated upon the suffering people of Ireland by a foreign tyranny and maintained solely by the force of British arms and the corruption of British subsidies. According to this picture the Northerners are true Irishmen at heart, who would revert to Irish loyalty upon the instant if the Occupation were lifted. Plainly, then, the unyielding fight must be carried on between Dublin and London for the liberation of Belfast.

This appealing sketch contains one truthful line. The Northerners, Protestants and Catholics alike, are true Irishmen. If anything, more sturdily and defiantly so than the Southerners; at least they are more given to staying in Ireland. There is, however, no discernible evidence that the majority in the North, in practice the 66 per cent of the population who are not Roman Catholics, are at all disposed to think of the republic now existing in the Twenty-six-County area as Ireland. Nor, apparently, does any recombination of the two states so far proposed by any Southern politician strike them as a desirable object for their loyalties. They don’t seem very thrilled at the prospect of being rescued by Dublin.


WHENEVER the Southern politicians feel generous they revive a proposal first made by De Valera in 1938, that reunion be federal: the SixCounty area to keep its present parliament at Stormont, the South to keep its Dail, and each to legislate independently as before on domestic affairs. National concerns — defense, foreign affairs, and so on — are to be handled by a federal parliament.

That offer will have to be made a lot more precise before there is any genuine response. Normally Northern Ireland is not a self-supporting region. During the thirties it was a sinkhole of depression and unemployment; and even during the war, with its industries going full blast, it had an unfavorable export-import balance. Also, these industries — textiles, shipbuilding, aircraft manufacture — depend largely or wholly upon Empire orders or Empire preference.

As for governmental finances, the state is officially part of the United Kingdom and as such pays the regular heavy taxes. In most years, however, the bulk of these taxes is refunded to Stormont, which is the explanation of the charge that Partition is supported by British subsidies, a charge substantially correct. At the same time British social legislation also functions in Northern Ireland, bearing with it the same benefits and insurances as accrue in England. In a reunited Ireland would the Six Counties be able to live in the manner to which they have thus become accustomed? The Twenty-six Counties also have an unfavorable trade balance; and though, since the war, the Republic has been a creditor nation, the present government has felt it necessary to place the economy on an austerity basis. It is all very well to point out that England is hard up, too, but so far England has been able to help foot the bill for the North. What sign is there that the South either could or would?

Federal reunion also has a constitutional aspect. The promise to Stormont of independence in domestic affairs is large-minded but dim. In practice this would need to be underwritten by extensive guarantees, since there are countless points at which the national constitution might override the local one. As the proposal has been made so far, the intent seems to be reunion under the Irish constitution of 1937, which states, with evident anticipation, that the national territory consists of the whole of Ireland. It would be nice if the geographical integrity of the island were all that needed to be ratified. Unfortunately there is more, the extent of the difference being best summed up by remembering that these two states which started, some thirty years ago, with the same laws and a common history have since pursued widely diverging lines of development. The North has a rubberstamp parliament which, for the main part, simply re-enacts all British legislation. The government party there is always Tory-Unionist; the legislation is Labor, Conservative, or what you will, according to which British party is dominant in Westminster.

Meanwhile, the formerly revolutionary South, moving generally rightwards as fast as the North has been taken to the left, has created a provincial, middle-class, somewhat reactionary little republic. The question is: in event of reunion, which is to be on top? Or to put it in a more politic way, which is to be more coequal than the other?

Now, the first guarantee demanded would be the religious one. The Southern population is 94 per cent Catholic; the Northern, 66 per cent non-Catholic. In a reunited Ireland the nonCatholies would amount to a little less than 25 per cent, and they would want absolute assurances that, in accepting a change of status from that of a local majority to that of a minority within the nation as a whole, they would not be treated as the present Catholic minority has been treated in the North, where there has been an ugly record of bitterness and discrimination. These assurances would naturally be offered, and in good faith, but it would be another thing to back them up, for the present constitution is frankly written for a Catholic country; and as Irish Protestant, spokesmen frequently point out, similar assurances have been given before, notably Franco’s Fuero de las españoles.

De Valera wrote the constitution, and if he had set it to music it could hardly be a more intimate reflection of his Roman-Calvinist personality. The preamble begins, “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire. . .”(Does this disenfranchise Unitarians? There are about 8000 in Ireland, so that if their loyalty to the constitution is questionable they could be at least a hundred times as dangerous an internal factor as the Irish Communists. In any case the Northern Protestants never had a chance to vote on it.) With Article 44 the true De Valerian empressement emerges. He used to be a professor of mathematics and he has lost none of the academic passion for qualifying every concession to bits. Thus there is no bold, simple promise of religious liberty. Instead, “Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.” Plainly, no indecent or obstreperous religious practices will be allowed in reunified Eire. The second and third paragraphs are most interesting from the viewpoint of Presbyterian Antrim: —

The State recognizes the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church us the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.

The State also recognizes the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.

Again one notes the failure specifically to mention the Unitarians, though they are more numerous than the Quakers or the Jews. The provision in the last clause against any new religion arising in Ireland after 1937 is also illustrative of Mr. de Valera’s cautious forethought. As the poem says, there will be no second Patrick.

The paragraph about the special position of the Catholic Church was hardly calculated to soothe Northern sensibilities, and it didn’t. For a long time, though, it was taken as but another sample of the lugubrious vigilance that saturates the whole document, like the promise that the institution of marriage would be defended “against attack,” the long qualifications on the rights of free speech and assembly, and the rather elaborate guarantee of woman’s rigid to stay in the home. In recent years, however, several legal decisions have demonstrated that the special recognition is an effective, or at least an influential, element. Thus the High Court decision in 1950, in the Tilson case, by which the ne temere pledge, the promise exacted from the Protestant spouse in a mixed marriage that the children be brought up Catholics, was held to be an enforceable contract. Since the constitution also forbids divorce and adds to this that no person divorced in another country “shall be capable of contracting [within the Irish jurisdiction] a valid marriage during the lifetime of the other party” — and indeed goes beyond the Catholic position by failing to provide machinery for the recognition of a Papal decree of nullity — it can he seen that guarantees to the Northern Protestants will be a very ticklish matter to arrange.

And suppose it were decided that in these categories the present laws of the Six Counties would not be challenged — the effect would be to perpetuate the existence of two groups of secondclass citizens in the one country. These groups exist now: the Protestants in the South, bound by this eminently Catholic constitution; and the Catholics in the North, who have had to put up, not only with blatant discrimination, but with a system of laws which from the Catholic point of view is infinitely less desirable than that by which Catholics live in the South. Under the 1937 constitution what ameliorative compromise could be arranged? Would Protestants in the Twenty-six Counties be allowed divorce, birth control, and so on, like their Northern coreligionists? Would the Six-County Catholics be left bleakly unprotected from these occasions of sin? While the country remains divided the answer can be stalled off. Meanwhile, though Mr. de Valera has said many sparkling things about gerrymandering on the Londonderry city council and the need for reviving the Irish language in this generation, he has not got around to this conundrum.


ECONOMICS, religious status, and the constitution apart, there remain several other difficulties, which each year are more pronounced. In the North public education is nondenominational though 65 per cent support is given to sectarian schools; in the South the National Schools (primary) are fully state-supported, but the management of each school is in the hands of the minister of the dominant faith within the school area. There is no free secondary education in the South, though about 600 out of 45,000 secondary school students gel public scholarships and in general the fees are low. In the North there is no compulsory Gaelic; in the South instruction is in and through Gaelic for the first three years and after that the language is a required subject.

For social legislation the difference between the two states is very considerable—high in the North, low in the South — and the same pretty generally is true of wage rates, union organization and activity, and most labor conditions. When we get down to vital statistics, we find the North leading in nearly every category, though the figures for neither area are much to boast about. Since 1901 the population of the Six Counties has increased steadily, by a total of about 35,000. The Southern population has declined steadily (down about 104,000 in fifty years), at least till the last census (1951), which showed a one tenth per cent increase during the four years from 1946. A statement by De Valera casts some doubt even on that poor little trend.

The North has the normal surplus of females over males; in the South the surplus is opposite. In the rural areas, where half the men are still single at 37, many of the girls no longer wait. They leave. The marriage rates are too discouraging: 5.7 per thousand of population in the South (1942-49 average), and 7.5 in the North, as compared with a U.S. average of 12.6 for the same period. As to emigration, the 1946 census gives a total of 187,111 from Southern Ireland in the preceding ten years; and in August, 1951, Mr. de Valera told a Galway audience that “the best figures which I have been able to get indicate that net emigration, which was estimated as having been 10,000 in the year 1947, went to 28,000 in the year 1948, reached 34,000 in 1949, and was not less than 40,000 in 1950.” That means 112,000 in four years — not bad from a population of less than 3 million. Emigration figures for the North are not available for that period, but they have been high in the past. The fact is that both parts of the country are living at about half the normal potential: the North perhaps slightly more, the South clearly less. If this goes on for another generation the North will be offering the federal solution to the South with the terms reversed.

If any Ulster Tory leader were to propose a full discussion of Partition, without commitments, he would likely be answered by a gulp of dismay and then a lasting silence. None will, because the politicians on both sides of the Border are too much alike: old, cautious, querulous, and rather small-time. The Southern leaders wear Catholicism ostentatiously like a lodge regalia, and so fear compromising it in public that . . . well, at the funeral of former President Douglas Hyde his successor, President Sean O’Kelly, and the leaders of government and opposition stood outside the Protestant cathedral during the service. Usually a few tame heretics are kept to represent the heads of party and state on such occasions. Three years ago one cabinet minister declared that another had accused him of political inexperience because he had let himself be photographed with the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin. Thus, while the Protestants in the South have experienced little active intolerance, they can hardly escape feeling that their presence is regarded as faintly contaminating. This is not so with the Catholics in the North, who have bigotry pushed into their faces individually and collectively, and officially too, when their Tory governors don their regalia on the “Twalfth” to beat the Orange drums and bellow against the employment of Papishes. Yet, strip either set of their badges and you have only a lot of elderly men who have made a bad fist of governing what could be one of the truly important small nations, and isn’t.

The age of these leaders is what promises a little hope. Another ten years must bring in new men and, though there are few signs of it, perhaps a fresh outlook as well. The generation now in power is the one with whom Partition came into being. Rarely in any country does the generation which discovers a great political problem solve it, perhaps because they always tend to see it as it first existed and not as time and society continually refashion it. Their arguments are aimed farther and farther behind the advancing target till what is intended for trenchant policy has become useless and bewildered historical recrimination. All of these leaders reached that stage by early middle age. Since then the sum of their achievement seems to be that the people grow convinced that Yeats was right about it: —

A statesman is an easy man,
He tells his lies by rote;
A journalist makes up his lies
And takes you by the throat;
So stay at home and drink your beer
And let the neighbours vote . . .


So MUCH for lamentation. The difficulties that lie in the path of reunion are indeed more formidable and more numerous than this brief account can indicate. None of them, however, is immutable; they are all inherent in the present situation and characteristic of it, must change if it changes and end when it goes. Again, most are simply fears: fear that Irishmen under one label will persecute Irishmen under another label, fear of unwelcome competition (a dreadful concept), fear for the subsidized crankery that particularism breeds, or worst of all, fear of life: the status quo is the devil but it is the devil you’ve got used to. Most of these fears are irrational, the rest merit contempt. Certainly none of them is sufficient excuse for tolerating the continuance of Partition or for delaying even momentarily an intelligent, wholehearted attempt to end it.

Partition is truly intolerable. Its effect is to reduce an entire nation not merely to provincialism but to a queasy, suspicious parochialism too often content with fourth-best because, lacking whole strength, it might find the best unsafe to handle. Hence emigration: that is no country for young men. Hence the literary censorship: good writers are known to reject the weak inspiration of the parish pump. Hence, too, the Orange lodges in the North and the Knights of Columbanus in the South: to ensure that the top parishioners profit most from the parish. Because fear breeds every disease from bigotry to greed, Ireland will not again be whole and sound till these fears are expelled.

There is another saying of Yeats’s more apt than the poem above: “Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair rouses the will to full intensity.” All Irish leaders will agree that Partition is that obstacle. It isn’t. They are. However, time is contemplating them; and the young men may now begin to study Partition. They had better do it without despair. Something has got to rouse Ireland’s will.

If the present constitution stands in the way of reunion, what trouble to write a new one? The federal proposal is nonsense for Ireland, anyway, no matter how cleverly the constitution may be stretched. A nation’s charter is not properly a tarpaulin to cover diversity, it is the foundation for unity. But unity must be genuine. There can be no second-class citizens, and that means no special recognition for any group of Irishmen on any grounds whatsoever. It is, after all, small compliment to the Catholic Church to suggest that it needs official protection in Ireland, of all countries. And as for guarantees to Protestants, what more is needed than a very brief declaration of religious freedom and equality in plain language?

In reunited Ireland the Protestants would be a bloc of more than 600,000 voters. Every party would have to bid for those votes, and thus for the first time since the revolution real politics would emerge. The present situation in the North is political inanity; in the South every politician scrambles over every other politician’s back, trying to press, worm, and crush himself against the furthest possible conservative extreme; the center is vacant, not to say vacuous; the leftward position doesn’t exist. To this there is no considerable liberal opposition, not because there are no Irish liberals— there are plenty — but because no politician will organize such a party. Sean MacBride made gestures in that direction in 1946-47, got a strong immediate response from the urban constituencies his Clann na Poblachta party contested, and afterwards had very little to say about the original program. His failure as a leader proves many things, among them that the Irish still dislike opportunism; his initial success shows that there is a large liberal group, as yet scarcely represented, which wants politics based on real issues and actual bargaining of interests, not on the fear of what reactionary elements might think if somebody said boo! to them.

This is not to suggest that the liberals, Catholic or Protestant, are potentially radical; it is simply to recognize that, before they can join, the South must reverse much of its later development and go most of the way across to meet the North. Only in that direction is real politics possible. Any open contest between the social legislation which the North now has and that written to the accompaniment of Mr. de Valera’s “frugal sufficiency,” compulsory Gaelic for all, and the literary censorship would be too decisive to be interesting. Nor is this a question of socialism. Nonsocialist Southern Ireland has nationalized railroads, road transport, utilities and communications, and has decorated its economy with government-granted monopolies and quota systems in all sorts of commodities from Gaelic cornflakes to Gaelic aspirins.

The question is, what time of day is it in the world? One sometimes gets the impression that De Valera and his fellow statesmen, pro and con, really accept time as another dimension and are studying how to move sideways in it, or on a slight backward bias, forever.

Beyond the political difficulties there remain the economic. Here, too, extant policy seems often to be based on some rather unrealistic hopes. One can actually hear the suggestion made that Partition may be settled by default, that if Britain goes bankrupt or goes Communist the Northern bosses will rush to rejoin the South. All one can say is that, in the first case, the Republic of Ireland, whose finances and currency are those of the sterling bloc, will go bust too; and as for the second, any situation that would permit Britain to go Communist would have already disposed of Ireland as a significant political entity.

The true solution, as yet all but unrealized, is contained in Ireland’s great undeveloped potential. The country is not bottled up; it has access to all western markets. It has no excess population. It needn’t be underfinanced since the amount of capital invested abroad per head of population, about £150 in 1947, is probably the highest in the world. In industry the productivity indices, though still low, have nearly doubled in the last twenty years, but in agriculture, the staple of the economy, the output has hardly changed at all — it is a little lower now than before the war. There is no tolling what upward limit might be reached if courage and initiative were equal to opportunity. For the last thirty years Ireland has succeeded in living on its fat by avoiding any lively exertion. Now, surely, the country is well enough rested to wake up and tackle the big job. the creation of a society and an economy into which all Irishmen may be welcomed with pride.

All that is needed is that Irish spirit that in the past has been no feeble thing. There are plenty of men who remember how it could rouse to the fight. One lively indomitable Irishman, Frank O’Connor, has told how when he was a schoolboy in Cork a new teacher came, a man named Daniel Corkery, who kept the class after hours to teach them a language that was not on the state-approved curriculum. It might well have cost him his job. None of the boys had heard of it before, though, strangely, it was called Irish. Corkery wrote a phrase on the board for them to memorize: Muscail do mhisneach, a Bhanbha! After class O’Connor went up to him and asked what it meant. The teacher smiled and told him, “Waken your courage, Ireland!”